EARTHQUAKE COMMISSION AGANIST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2239

Council Meeting: MARCH 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy

The Earthquake Commission (EQC) complained to the Press Council about an article published in The Press on December 28, 2011, and posted on Stuff the same day. The complaint is not upheld.

Background
On December 23, 2011, Christchurch suffered further major earthquakes – magnitude 5.8 and 6.0 – which caused extensive damage to land and buildings, although no further loss of life.
The December 28 article, headlined Latest quakes costly focussed on the further costs of these shakes to the Christchurch City Council (CCC), and to the EQC, with the government – and therefore the taxpayer – having to meet the shortfall of funds necessary to carry out remediation and rebuilding costs.
These would be considerable and would drain the EQC’s natural disaster fund, leaving the shortfall to be funded by government.
The article quoted EQC spokesman, Gordon Irving, as saying it was too early to determine the scale of the shakes compared with the two big 13 June earthquakes.
“The financial impact will depend on the proportion of new damage versus worsened existing damage”, he said.
However, many homes hit hard would be in the red zone, where they were already slated for demolition, and the land eventually abandoned.
The article went on to discuss the impact on the CCC which had not been able to reinsure after previous quakes; discussion would be taking place between the CCC and government to determine what should be done.
The article concluded by stating that Nick Bryant, a spokesperson for Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, would not comment on the possible cost of the quakes, but that the government remained committed to underwriting the EQC.

The Complaint
Iain Butler complained on behalf of the EQC.
He stated that on December 26 The Press requested comment on the impact of the December 23 quakes on the EQC repair and claim settlement timeframes.
A statement attributed to Bruce Emson, EQC Customer Services General Manager, was sent that day saying that the EQC would not know the impact of the December 23 quakes until the scale of the damage was better understood, and that this would probably be after the New Year when people came back from holiday and viewed the damage. He also asked that The Press, in writing the story, advise readers that the EQC claims centre would be open from 27 December.
Mr Butler complained that the 28 December story incorrectly attributed the EQC’s remarks to Gordon Irving (who had left the EQC 3 months previously).
He also complained that the article stated “many homes hard hit on Friday would be in ‘the red zone’ and reassessments ‘could disrupt timetables for repairs’”.
The complainant said that the correspondence with The Press did not include any line which could reasonably bear either of the above assertions.
Mr Butler informally complained about the article on the day of publication.
A formal complaint was lodged with The Press on 19 January 2012.

The Newspaper’s Response
Mr Butler’s complaint is that the story was inaccurate. The Press acknowledges that wrongly attributing remarks in the article to Gordon Irving was a mistake, and published a correction on 4 January 2012 and corrected the on-line Stuff article (which acknowledged the original mistake).
The EQC maintains that the two statements complained about were not made by the EQC, and provides e-mail correspondence as proof.
However, The Press says these comments were made to the reporter in a telephone interview. The editor says that if Mr Butler disputes the accuracy of the material, he should have provided a statement of clarification, or a Letter to the Editor. No evidence to contradict the reporter’s notes has been supplied.
The editor provided evidence of The Press’s willingness, on previous occasions, to work cooperatively with the EQC on matters relating to accuracy and balance.

Further Interchange
The EQC agreed that information was exchanged in a telephone discussion between the reporter and the EQC media manager on 26 December. However, this was not an interview.
The editor, in response, stated: “Is the EQC really suggesting that a call from a reporter to one of its communications representatives is not a ‘phone interview’?” This call did produce the information written up in the article. The reporter took notes and wrote the story on the same day. The Press stands by the story as it is published.

Discussion and Conclusion
At times of crisis, there sometimes can be significant tension between the need of the news agencies to get the story and get it out, and the concern of agencies charged by the government not to fuel the flames of anxiety and panic.
However, on this occasion The Press was dogged in its quest for an accurate story, contacted the appropriate agencies, and followed a written trail of information provided by e-mails and telephone conversations (with notes) with accredited spokespeople for the EQC and the CCC.
The Press did make a mistake in attributing statements to a wrongly named person. However, it corrected that mistake quickly, both in the newspaper and on line.
The December 23 earthquakes were major events affecting large numbers of people. The newspaper had a clear duty to report on the aftermath as quickly and accurately as possible, especially as public holidays intervened, call centres were closed, and it was hard to get news.
The Press Council cannot resolve whether the assertions that many of the affected properties were in the Red Zone and that the repair timetable would be disrupted were made in a phone conversation – The Press has declined to make the reporter’s notes available. However, it is difficult to see that these were incorrect statements in view of the December 23 earthquakes – they are probably self-evident. In the circumstances the presence in the article of these assertions does not lead to a finding that the article is unbalanced, inaccurate or unfair.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.